The New Orleans that Aaron Neville grew up in was a troubled city with an irrepressible soul.
When Neville and his brothers learned to drive, they'd go joyriding through the Third Ward as Mississippi-born Sam Cooke sang “You Send Me,” “Wonderful World” or “A Change Is Gonna Come” on the radio.
That kind of exposure to the New Orleans music world would eventually make them into some of the Crescent City's most famous citizens, the Neville Brothers.
“It was like music from the streets,” the Grammy Award-winning singer told FOXNews.com. “People in New Orleans had a way of walking that was music. It was a tempo, it was a beat."
That New Orleans is gone. And while Neville has no plans to relocate to his native city, that hasn't stopped him from joining other celebrities in continuing to fight, a year later, to resurrect the Big Easy and the surrounding areas.
“Celebrities were stepping up to the plate, they were doing it because they felt it in their hearts and did what they could to contribute something,” Neville said. “Celebrities were there and we were coming up with ways to raise money with music, while everyone else was sitting on their hands, and it just wasn't right.”
“Our whole culture was almost wiped out, things we lived growing up and now know it's all memories now,” Neville added. “All that time, and no one did nothing about it — that's the most painful part.”
Among their efforts to help out after Katrina, the Neville Brothers participated in "From the Big Apple to the Big Easy," which also featured musicians such as Elton John, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett, Lenny Kravitz, Cyndi Lauper and Allen Toussaint, and raised $9 million.
“From the Big Apple to the Big Easy” was released last week as a double-disc DVD, with all of the profits going to Katrina relief.
The Neville Brothers also teamed up with Dave Matthews at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver in September 2005, raising $2 million and collecting 30,000 lbs. of food in a single night.
Aaron Neville also lent his voice, singing “Amazing Grace” to an American Red Cross commercial.
And Neville's October 2005 release of “Christmas Prayer,” under the EMI Gospel label, will continue to donate 60 cents from each copy sold to the American Red Cross until Dec. 31, 2006.
Growing up in New Orleans Neville and his brothers, who are part Native American, would soak in the tambourine-led chants of Indian bands and sing-song vibrato of American country along with the melodies of a city with strong French, Spanish, Irish, Italian, African and Caribbean roots.
When people began playing the records of native son Fats Domino, Neville's older brother Art taught himself to do a dead-on imitation. Music was a huge part of their lives.
"When you saw a second-line parade behind somebody that died — after the first line, which was whoever the dead person was kin to — they'd strike up the diddly-ram-bo, and everyone knows that it's someone who's dead, but they started doing the dances, the music would get to them.
"And you didn't need have to have a parade for no reason — the Indians played the tambourines and chants, Irish wanted to drink green beer, the Italians had their going to St. Joseph's shrine. It was a melting pot. Good and bad, it was the best days in the world for me."
Neville and his brothers came of age in the impoverished Calliope Project, where they sat in the back of the bus but lived blissfully unaware of the racism and poverty around them.
"It was different than other cities that were Jim Crow, because white and black lived not far from each other or on the same block," he said.
"We'd drink out of 'colored' water fountains and had our own bathrooms, and sitting in the back of the bus was the norm — it was only later that I realized what was happening — but that was the way back then, and still and all I wouldn't want to grow up anywhere else.”
But Neville can't return to the city of his childhood. The singer suffers from asthma, and the high level of molds and airborne contaminants still lingering in his hometown could spell both professional and medical disaster for him.
He now lives in Nashville, Tenn., and hasn't been back since before the hurricane struck.
“The city that I knew is not there. It went with the water,” he said. “I think they're going to make a new New Orleans, without the memories I knew when. It was my home and it's been taken away, and that's happened to a lot of people. I don't think I want to live there now. It's not my New Orleans."
But whether or not other displaced New Orleans musicians come back to the city, the music will always be in their hearts, Neville said.
“The music lives on in the musicians who are spreading the music everywhere they went,” he said.
And no matter how bad it's gotten, thinking of New Orleans always brings to Neville's mind the lyrics of Sam Cooke, and the one song in particular that seems as relevant as ever.
“Sam Cooke never grows old, and it's right on time again today,” he said. “We still are hoping a change will come, you know?”